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Story Archives: First governor arrives in Natchez during Choctaw crisis in 1798
|First governor arrives in Natchez during Choctaw crisis in 1798|
(Ninth in a series)
Winthrop Sargent was 45 years old when he stepped from a flatboat onto the river bank at Natchez in August 1798 as the first governor of the newly-organized Mississippi Territory. He was so ill he could hardly walk.
The immediate tasks before him were monumental, but none more daunting than dealing with the fear throughout Natchez country of Indians. Hints of potential trouble began when surveyors with both the U.S. and Spanish governments prepared to mark the boundary line between Mississippi Territory and Spanish West Florida. That line was to be run along the 31st parallel and began on the east side of the Mississippi six miles below Fort Adams in present day Wilkinson County.
Sargent well knew that relations with the Indians would be one of his most difficult tasks. He was a man of some experience in that field. Having served as secretary of the Northwest Territory in Ohio Country since 1787, he had previously surveyed part of that region for a land company made up of many of his comrades from the Revolutionary War. Many times he had come into contact with the various tribes of the region. Some had violently opposed white settlement of their homeland.
During the mid-1780s, many white settlers in Kentucky as well as travelers had been killed by Indians. In many cases, settlers retaliated. Reacting to public pressure, President George Washington in 1790 sent a military force led by General Josiah Harmar to take on some of the more hostile tribes. But in battle, he was soundly defeated.
Named as Harmar's replacement was Sargent's boss, Gen. Arthur St. Clair, who was also the governor of the Northwest Territory, which included the present day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the northeastern part of Minnesota.
A Revolutionary War veteran, St. Clair's destination was the village of Kekionga, the capital of the Miami tribe, near present-day Fort Wayne, Ind. His army train moved slowly, hampered by excess baggage and by followers -- some 200 to 250 wives, children, washerwomen and others. His men, about 1,100, were poorly-trained, poorly-armed and disgruntled.
Desertion was so bad that St. Clair publicly executed captured deserters. One of St. Clair's officers prayed that the "Enemy may not be disposed to give us battle" because U.S. forces "are the worst and most dissatisfied Troops I have ever served with." In November along the Wabash River in Indiana, St. Clair's army faced the Indians. Because St. Clair and his top general were sick, Col. Winthrop Sargent, the adjutant general, was inspecting the militia when more than 1,000 Indians -- led by Little Turtle of the Miamis, Blue Jacket of the Shawnees and Buckongahelas of the Delawares (Lenape) -- launched a surprise attack.
The results were horrendous for the U.S. army and militia -- 632 were killed, 264 wounded -- a casualty rate of 97 percent during a three-hour battle. The heart was cut out of one general, St. Clair and Sargent were wounded. Historians say this defeat was the worst in the history of the U.S. Army. In 1794, under Gen. Anthony Wayne, the U.S. scored a decisive victory against the Indian alliance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers and turned the tide.
Because St. Clair was ill throughout much of tenure as governor of the Northwest Territory, Sargent often times handled both his job as secretary and that of the governor. His experience in both Indian affairs and the day-to-day operations of a frontier government compelled President John Adams on May 7, 1798, to appoint Sargent governor of the newly-formed Mississippi Territory, comprising part of the present day states of Mississippi and Alabama. Natchez would be the capital.
According to historian Dunbar Rowland, Sargent arrived in Natchez on August 6 "in very poor health...suffering from a dangerous malady almost as fatal as the yellow fever then raging at Philadelphia." Recovering, Sargent felt well enough 10 days later to address the people of the territory. There was much to be done -- establish offices, make appointments and create a government.
But the most pressing issue before him dealt with Indian affairs.
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